Over the past 12 years, Cincy’s Rosenthal New Play Prize has rewarded its share of turkeys, but it has also furthered the careers of notable scribes such as Jeffrey Hatcher and Keith Glover. This year’s winning script, “The Dead Eyed Boy,” is a searing, intense and genuinely disturbing drama from a youthful and largely unknown North Carolina-based author named Angus MacLachlan. Once they had recovered from their shock at the play’s palpable force and explicit subject matter, the local audience responded with uncommonly passionate enthusiasm. MacLachlan is a name to watch, and this very striking and accomplished play deserves a Gotham outing.
Requiring only three actors and a single minimal domestic setting, “Dead End Boy” has no stylistic gimmicks. A look at the struggles of the rural American underclass, thepiece has some of the same intensity as the plays of Sam Shepard, along with a comparable sense of violent theatricality.
Although MacLachlan takes his audience to some rough-hewn spots, this is no conventional piece of Gen X nihilism. On the contrary, this play works because, while it doesn’t judge its hardscrabble characters, it also provides a clear and moral point of view.
The action revolves around two recovering drug addicts named Billy (Kyle Fabel) and Shirley-Diane (Raye Lankford). At the start of the play, sexual groping has developed into the possibility of marriage for this struggling ex-Marine and tough-as-nails former party girl. By necessity, that involves Soren (Dan McCabe), the 14-year-old kid with the misfortune to be Shirley-Diane’s son.
Soren has serious self-esteem problems. He sees himself as the unwanted product of a rape (true), and also suffers from the facial disfigurement that gives the play its title. The kid’s dead eye is a consequence of the fetal damage caused by the drugs in his mother’s adolescent system.
Through numerous short scenes penned with the kind of manic, violent sensibility that mirrors the lives of characters on the edge, MacLachlan chronicles Billy’s attempts both to stay clean and to do something to help this angry, emotionally traumatized child. Unable to stay off drugs, Shirley-Diane intervenes with her new husband’s efforts with ultimately disastrous consequences.
The action has an apocalyptic intensity and a horrific conclusion, but the playwright manages to introduce a remarkable amount of light and shade into this sad story. Shirley-Diane is a mother from hell, but warm scenes between her and Soren abound. It’s also impossible not to be moved by Billy’s personal struggle to learn about fatherhood while keeping his nose clean. And Soren you just want to gather up in your arms.
Director Charles Tower has forged a very well-cast and passionate production for the play’s world premiere. McCabe is entirely credible and honest as poor Soren, and Lankford turns in a laudably bold and sexual performance as Shirley-Diane. But it’s Fabel’s splendidly understated work that makes the show. Thoughtful and intelligent, he avoids all the many pitfalls of this kind of show and turns in a very moving portrait of a man whose earnest efforts cannot overcome the horrors of his environment.
The emotional intensity is occasionally allowed to lapse into showy overkill, and transitions are unnecessarily clunky. Also, MacLachlan needs to revise or cut a cheap coda in which the two men have a bonding moment that exists only in Billy’s mind. But these are minor quibbles in an otherwise riveting and emotional evening of theater.